Review: Sonic Mania

Sonic’s latest balances the old with the new to refreshing effect.

By Andrew Hsieh. Posted 08/14/2017 14:30 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
Editor's Choice
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Addictive, fast-paced platforming that returns Sonic the Hedgehog to his roots
Poison Mushroom for...
Some less than classic mechanics return; some unlockables unusable in story mode

For a guy who’s all about speeding ahead as effortlessly as possible, Sonic the Hedgehog’s had kind of a bumpy road. Everyone’s been in on the joke, too: even when games like Sonic Generations come out to critical acclaim, Sonic just can’t shake the specter of games like Sonic Unleashed or the notorious Sonic ’06. But one thing’s for sure: Sega doesn’t let that get them down. And neither does Christian Whitehead.

Whitehead, also known as The Taxman, is an indie game developer, but he’s also well-known for updating and remaking ports of the original 2-D Sonic the Hedgehog games for Sega Genesis. That expertise serves him well with Sonic Mania, which in an era where every other remake is a “return to form,” is actually, superlatively a return to form.

Starting with the classic vocal sample over the Sega logo, Sonic Mania‘s story mode begins with a quick, charming in-game sequence, and then is off to the races—no voice acting necessary. With that, Mania shows Sonic the Hedgehog’s roots nothing but love. Where other Sonic games, except for Generations, might have shied away from the simplicity that Sonic built his series on, Mania embraces it.

Keeping it old-school

Sonic Mania returns to the 2-D side-scrolling gameplay of Genesis-era Sonic, much like Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 did, but unlike that attempt at updating the franchise, Mania isn’t afraid to use more-or-less original assets from the ’90s. Brightly colored sprites of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles dash and jump exactly the way they did in 1994, remixes of classic tunes fill out the soundtrack, and Mania even offers CRT scanline filters to achieve that feeling of playing games late into a school night.

Not just your dad’s Sonic

Thankfully, Mania isn’t just a retread of what’s come before, which Whitehead could easily get away with considering Sonic fans’ expectations at this point. Instead, it evokes old Sonic games in clever ways, incorporating new Chaos Emerald special stages reminiscent of the Blue Sphere stages in Sonic 3 & Knuckles and even calling back to Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine in a way that’s just too good to spoil.

That said, some additions are a little disappointing, and some old mainstays might have benefited from some TLC. A new drop dash move in Sonic’s repertoire feels floaty, and Mania bizarrely chooses to keep some stage mechanics intact, such as the notorious Sandopolis Zone. That zone required you to periodically pull a light switch to keep ghosts at bay in Sonic 3, and hasn’t gotten much better in Mania.

Sonic Mania Special Level Screenshot

Still, Mania feels great overall, with trip-ups like those acting much the same way as obstacles in the Sonic games: slight annoyances that don’t affect your overall run too much. Split-screen competitive mode returns to much fanfare, and stages are as full of nuances and secrets as ever. Quality-of-life improvements, like being able to start over from the beginning of a stage, instead of from the beginning of the game like the original Genesis games, help too, even if the life system still feels a little antiquated.

With Sonic Mania, Christian Whitehead and his team have done exactly what fans have wanted for years: start with the old and incorporate the new, keeping great level design, heart-pounding music and charming art direction. Sonic’s back.

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